Politics & Policy

How the New GOP Congress Can Make a Good Iran Deal Possible

Republicans in Congress have a golden opportunity — if they play their cards right.

As our lawmakers return from their winter recess, the Iran nuclear negotiations will be high on the foreign-policy agenda. The impetus in the new Republican-controlled Congress will be to immediately pass tough new sanctions legislation, but there is a better way to turn up the heat on Tehran while making it clear to everyone that the obstacle to a successful negotiated settlement is Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not Republicans in Congress.

To be sure, getting an acceptable nuclear deal with Iran will require bringing more pressure to bear. Iran makes concessions only when its back is against the wall, and Congress has always understood this. It was congressional sanctions (which the Obama administration resisted) that brought Iran to the table in the first place and got us the interim nuclear deal in November 2013. In the aftermath of that interim deal, Congress wanted to continue its successful strategy by passing tough sanctions-in-waiting legislation. The Kirk–Menendez bill would have put in place conditional penalties that would have gone into effect only if Iran walked away from the negotiations or if it was caught cheating on the interim deal’s terms.

This was the perfect opening for the White House to play good cop/bad cop. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has shown through his concept of “two-level games” how an implacable opposition back home can actually strengthen one’s hand in international negotiations. The Iranians are shrewd enough to play this game against us, as President Hassan Rouhani insists that he is eager to strike a deal, and that the only problem is getting the more recalcitrant Supreme Leader to come around.

Instead, however, the Obama administration undercut its own leverage. It lobbied against the proposed sanctions legislation, claiming that bill would demonstrate bad faith and spoil the atmosphere for negotiations. Although the bill had strong support from lawmakers, Majority Leader Harry Reid, under pressure from the White House, refused to bring it to the floor of the Senate.

The administration’s peculiar theory of diplomacy, which holds that the best way to get concessions from Iran is to play nice, has been repeatedly proven incorrect over the past year. The best solution, therefore, would be for the administration itself to return to the pressure track. In fact, in last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama declared, “If Iran’s leaders don’t seize this opportunity [and agree to a final nuclear deal], then I will be the first to call for sanctions.” But, like the Syria red-line debacle, this appears to be another of President Obama’s empty threats.

Once again, therefore, it will fall on Congress to do the right thing. With the sweeping Republican victories in the midterm elections, there has been talk of Congress’s passing new sanctions-in-waiting legislation based on Kirk–Menendez as soon as it reconvenes. However, if Congress attempts to pass such a bill in January, the administration will again falsely accuse it of sabotaging negotiations just as we were making “progress” toward the March 1 deadline, the media will draw an erroneous equivalence between “hardliners” in Iran and “hardliners” in the U.S. Congress, and many will wrongly blame the Republicans, not the Iranians, for the likely eventual failure of diplomacy.

Not only would this outcome be unfair, it would be damaging both to Republicans and to U.S. interests, because America’s Iran strategy, including sanctions and possibly tougher actions down the road, requires international support. If there were a widespread perception that the U.S. Congress, not Iran, is responsible for the impasse, then the international consensus against Iran could be broken.

Rather than go down this road, Republicans in Congress should announce that they will give the diplomats the space they need to reach an agreement by March 1. But they should also make clear that March 1 is a hard deadline. If the diplomats cannot strike an accord by this, their own deadline, then the hammer will come down. Congress will pass the toughest remaining sanctions on Iran’s banking, mining, and energy sectors. Rather than conditional sanctions-in-waiting, this bill should stipulate that sanctions will go into effect immediately on March 2 if a deal has not been reached.

If a “headline” political agreement is concluded by March 1, then Congress can simply repeat this strategy for the technical portion of the agreement, which has a built-in deadline of July 1. Once again, Congress can give the diplomats until July 1 to work out the technical details of an accord, but, if they cannot, more sanctions will be forthcoming on July 2. The bill should also include the useful contingency covered in Kirk–Menendez about Iranian cheating.

This approach has a number of virtues. First, it will likely enjoy broader support than Kirk–Menendez, both from our international partners and from congressional Democrats, whose participation will be necessary for a veto-proof majority. Second, the clear and credible threat of further sanctions on March 2 might just be enough to get the Iranians to swallow hard and work for a deal before the March 1 deadline. Third, if the diplomats cannot reach an agreement by their own deadlines (as is likely), then it will be clear to everyone that the blame rests with Iran’s Supreme Leader and not U.S. lawmakers. And on March 2, there will be little surprise or debate when Congress follows through with new sanctions as promised.

To make this approach work, however, Congress cannot put this issue on the back burner for the next several weeks. It must take action now. First, lawmakers must draw up sanctions legislation to go into effect on March 2 and make sure that they have the votes, ideally a veto-proof majority, to bring it into law.

Second, leading members of Congress must get the message out and make sure that it is heard. Over the next several weeks, in speeches, interviews, and statements from the floor, they can explain that they sincerely hope that the Iranians agree to an acceptable “final” deal by March 1, but that if they are unwilling to do so, new sanctions will be the result.

Finally, to prevent the diplomats from watering down the terms of an agreement in a desperate attempt to meet the deadline, members of Congress must make clear the terms of the deal that they would find acceptable. A final deal must push back Iran’s breakout timeline (the time required to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade nuclear material) to one year or more. Even if a “final” agreement is reached, if it falls short of this standard, the new sanctions will take effect.

In sum, the best approach for Republicans in Congress — and the one that would be best for the nation — is simply to hold the Iranians and the P5+1 to their own deadline. March 1 is not that far away.

— Matthew Kroenig is an associate professor and International Relations Field Chair in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, and a former adviser on Iran policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

Matthew Kroenig — Mr. Kroenig is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He was a foreign-policy adviser on the 2012 Mitt Romney and the 2016 Marco Rubio presidential campaigns. His most recent book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China.

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